S’pore PM’s first year dominated by casino gamble

Sebastian Tong
Reuters (9 Aug 05)
19 Aug 05

After a closely watched succession last August, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s first year in office has been dominated by two unexpected controversies — casinos and gold-plated taps.

Known more for social engineering than street protests, Singapore saw vociferous public opposition to the legalisation of casino gambling and uproar about the pay of the head of the country’s top charity and the bathroom fittings in his office.

While debate over the issues was largely confined to newspaper pages and internet forums, it has thrown into focus Lee’s pledge for greater political openness.

Activists had feared that Lee, who took office on August 12 last year, would be less tolerant of criticism than his popular predecessor Goh Chok Tong and more like his authoritarian father Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore.

“The worst fears of many observers have not materialised,” said Cherian George, author of “The Air-conditioned Nation”, a book on Singaporean politics.

Although Singapore politicians make a point of not worrying about popularity, analysts say that Lee, who was handed power by Goh, is keenly aware of his image ahead of possible elections in the coming months.

Parliamentary polls do not have to held until mid-2007, but the pro-government Straits Times daily said last month Lee may seek his own mandate by the last quarter of this year.

A victory for the People’s Action Party (PAP) is in no doubt.

Singapore has been ruled by the PAP since independence — forty years ago on Tuesday — and the party has never lost more than four seats in any election.

But to secure a strong mandate, analysts say Lee must at least match Goh’s 75 percent of the vote in 2001

Big gamble

Lee, 53, has taken his first major political gamble by legalising casino gambling.

“The casino issue may potentially take some votes away from the PAP, but it’s hard to say how many,” said Chua Beng Huat, an academic who has written books about Singaporean politics.

Lee argued that casinos would boost tourism and a services sector that is increasingly important in the $110 billion Singapore economy as the city state of 4.2 million people has been losing manufacturing jobs to lower-cost neighbours.

Public opinion was also galvanised after revelations last month that Singapore charity National Kidney Foundation Chief T.T. Durai earned S$600,000 ($362,500) per year and had installed gold-plated faucets in his executive toilet.

Durai resigned, but a comment by the wife of former prime minister Goh, the charity’s patron, that his salary was “peanuts” fuelled public outrage.

While the political impact of the scandal is limited — the charity is private and not state-linked — the episode has highlighted the widening income gap in the city-state.

Since taking charge of Asia’s richest country after Japan in terms of per capita income, Lee has faced problems ranging from a sputtering economy to rising unemployment and a falling birth rate.

In February, he unveiled a budget with measures to encourage families to have more children and in July the government eased property financing rules in a move aimed at boosting real estate prices, which still languish 36 percent below their 1996 peaks.

Softer image, no improvement

Once perceived as stern and aloof, Lee has softened his image, speaking publicly about the death of his first wife in 1982, his remarriage in 1985 and his fight with lymphoma cancer in the 1990s.

But despite the gentler face, critics say the ruling party has not let up its firm grip on political discourse.

“You cannot make the case that things have improved. There is essentially no change,” said opposition stalwart and leader of the Singapore Democratic Party Chee Soon Juan, adding that police harassed him when he launched a book last month.

A police spokeswoman told Reuters police were investigating Chee’s event and had seized a video disc there as he “did not possess a certificate for its public exhibition.”

After taking the reins, Lee announced a partial relaxation of rules on political discussions, dropping a rule requiring police approval for speaking at indoor gatherings. But laws requiring a permit for gatherings of 5 or more remain in place.

The government says such controls are necessary to maintain order in Singapore’s community of Chinese, Malays and Indians.

Both the U.S. State Department and Amnesty International have criticsed Singapore’s human rights record and curbs on free speech.

“There has been change but it was not in the direction of more liberal and pluralist politics,” said Garry Rodan, Director of Asia Research Centre at Australia’s Murdoch University.

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